The Definitive Guide: How Many Calories Should I Eat?

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I hate to say it…

But if you type “how many calories should I eat” into Google… you’ll be flooded with results written by people who don’t really know what they’re talking about.

I know, people who don't know what they're talking about on the internet!? Shocking! 

They’ll tell you that calories don't matter, or that you don’t need to count calories, but, how many of them can say they have washboard abs? I’m willing to bet not one.

Let me reassure you that by winding up on this article, you’re on the right track, despite any conflicting information you see out there. No matter if your goal is to lose 150 lbs and look stunning on the beach, or gain 30 lbs of muscle for football camp, you must pay close attention to the calories you’re putting into your body – at least for a little while.

If anyone tries to tell you that you don’t have to count calories, they either lack sufficient knowledge on the subject, or they’re just plain old lying to you in order to make a dollar (it’s sad, but i’m sorry to say it happens all the time).

Calories In vs. Calories Out

Indeed, the old ‘calories in vs. calories out’ theory is the most important concept to remember when it comes to nutrition. What this theory states is quite simple:

  • If you eat more calories than your body uses during a day, you will gain weight.
  • If you eat less calories than your body uses during a day, you will lose weight.
  • If you eat the same amount of calories that your body uses during a day, you will maintain your weight.

This concept is simple, but I really want to drive it home, as it is the bottom line when it comes to changing your body’s composition. If you don’t master this concept, you will more than likely fail at your attempts to improve your physique. It helps to visualize your body as a storage tank.

Your body uses calories in food to obtain the energy it needs to carry out the cellular processes that are necessary to sustain life. If you consume more calories than you need, these extra calories will be stored in fat tissue. When you eat fewer calories than you need, your body will need extra energy so it breaks down the deposits of fat tissue (adipose tissue) already present on the body to get the energy it needs.

When people say they’re “burning” fat, they simply mean that they’re releasing the stored calories from their storage tank (body). On the other hand, if you’re consuming more calories than you need, your storage tank (body) will only become larger.

Counting Calories Saves Time

If you’re not counting calories, there is no way for you to know for sure if you’re eating more or less calories than your body needs. You’re basically shooting for a target in the dark… without a flashlight, or night vision, or infrared… you get my point.

What’s the point in going to the gym and spending an hour on a treadmill.. or working your butt off in the weight room if you don’t know for sure that it will pay off? I don’t care how long you do cardio for, if you aren’t getting a calorie deficit by the end of the day, you are not going to lose weight. Period. This is the bottom line when it comes to weight loss.

It doesn’t matter if you’re eating nothing but healthy food either, the ‘calories in vs. calories out’ rule supersedes all. You could eat only apples all day long, but if you have too many, you’ll still gain weight.

My Point? Stop wasting your time and start counting calories. Not tomorrow, not next week, not next month and not after your birthday. Now.

A problem that lots of people come across is finding out just how many calories are in the foods that they normally eat. I too had this problem when I started counting calories, until I found ‘The Complete Book of Food Counts: The Book That Counts It All’ by Corrine T. Netzer. It’s by far the most comprehensive and all-encompassing calorie counter that I’ve seen. I’ve yet to come across a food item (even from popular fast food chains and restaurants) that it doesn’t have nutritional information on. It’s available in most major book stores, or you can get it here for those of you who prefer to do your shopping online.

How Many Calories Should I Eat a Day?

Now, in order for any of this information to be useful to you, you’ll need to determine the number of calories that you require on a daily basis. This is your maintenance level. Then you’ll need to adjust this number depending on your goal (i.e. if you want to lose weight, build muscle, etc.).

Your daily caloric needs depend on a number of factors including height, body mass, muscle to fat ratio (lean body mass), age, gender, genetics, health, and your basal metabolic rate (BMR). Your BMR is simply the total number of calories required to keep your body functioning while at rest over the course of a single day. Things like digestion and respiration function are included in this, but not your activity level.

Your BMR usually consists of two-thirds of your total daily calorie expenditure (TDEE), the other one-third is from activity and movement throughout the day.

Don’t Let the Math Scare You

The following looks a little bit like math class, but don’t let that scare you off. It’s not hard, and you’ll be extremely glad you took the time to figure it out.

The following formula calculates your BMR based on height, weight, age, and gender. It also considers the amount of calories you burn by exercise. For the average person, this formula will do the trick nicely:

Step 1

First, calculate your BMR according to this formula:

Men

BMR = 66 + (13.7 x weight in kg) + (5 x height in cm) – (6.8 x age in years)

Or

BMR = 655 + (4.354 X weight in lbs) + (4.569 X height in inches) – (4.7 X age in years)

Women

BMR = 655 + (9.6 x weight in kg) + (1.8 x height in cm) – (4.7 x age in years)

Or

BMR = 655 + (4.354 X weight in lbs) + (4.569 X height in inches) – (4.7 X age in years)

Step 2

Once you’ve calculated your BMR, you need to then multiply your BMR by one of the following activity factors to find out your TDEE (total daily calorie expenditure).

  • Sedentary = BMR x 1.2 (little or no exercise, probably a desk job)
  • Lightly Active = BMR x 1.375 (Light exercise or sports 1-3 days a week)
  • Mod. Active = BMR x 1.55  (Moderate exercise or sports 3-5 days a week)
  • Very Active = BMR x 1.725 (Hard exercise or sports 6-7 days a week)

The final value is your TDEE, or your maintenance level. This is the amount of calories you should eat per day to stay at your current weight.

Do You Want to Lose Fat, or Gain Muscle? Adjusting Your Calorie Intake According To Your Goal

Once you’ve discovered your personal daily caloric requirements from the above formula, you then need to adjust your calorie intake to meet your specific goal. It is very important that you establish one goal and to stick to it. When I talk to many people, their goal is to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time. While it is possible to lose a lot of fat and gain a tiny amount of muscle, or gain a lot of muscle and lose a tiny amount of fat at the same time; it’s more or less physiologically impossible to gain a lot of muscle and lose a lot of fat at the same time. The only situations where it is possible to lose a lot of fat and gain a lot of muscle are as follows:

  • If fat burning drugs or anabolic steroids are used.
  • In advanced bodybuilders or athletes after a long lay off. This simply implies that  these individuals are regaining what muscle they had previously lost. Regained muscle is often easier built than new muscle.
  • In genetic “superiors”.
  • In the beginner. Individuals who are starting to exercise for the first time are often extremely responsive to this training. It’s common to see very rapid strength and size gains in this period.

For the average person, it is a wise idea to commit yourself 100% to your most important goal. If you have a lot of fat to lose, I suggest adjusting your calories for fat loss. Once you’ve lost this fat you can then reanalyze your goals and adjust your calorie intake from there. If it’s more important to you to gain lean muscle mass, I suggest adjusting your calories for muscle gain. Just how much should you adjust your daily caloric intake for your specific goal? Let’s have a look:

  • For fat loss, you need to create a calorie deficit. The recommended amount would be to aim for 500 calories below your TDEE, or maintenance level (remember, that’s the final number from the above calculation). For example, If you have a TDEE of 2300 calories a day, creating a deficit of 500 calories (either through calorie cutting in your diet, or through exercise) will allow your body to safely and steadily lose fat. It will accomplish this while not providing a big enough calorie deficit to have a significant negative affect on your metabolism.
  • To gain lean muscle mass, you need to create a calorie surplus. Aim for 500 calories above your maintenance level and engage in a progressive weight-training program.
  •  If your goal is simply to maintain your weight, you should aim to simply keep your caloric intake at your maintenance level, or TDEE.

Extreme Cases

For some, it may be necessary to create a calorie deficit larger than 500 calories to see good results. If you have an extremely large amount of fat to lose, you can create a deficit of up to 1000 calories.

It is very important that you never create a deficit that’s larger than this. Further reduction in calories would start a severe slowing of the body’s metabolism, and your fat loss along with it. For a more specific caloric value that is tailored to your body weight, try reducing calories by 15-20% below your maintenance level.

It’s also important to never have a calorie deficit so large that you surpass the minimum recommended daily caloric intake levels that the American College of Sports Medicine have outlined. These minimum levels are 1200 calories per day for women, and 1800 calories per day for men.

If you’re a man, and you have a TDEE of 2500 calories, creating a deficit of 1000 calories would bring you below your minimum recommended level, which will do you more harm than good in the long run (due to a rapidly slowing metabolic rate). As long as you have a daily deficit no greater than 1000 calories, and never cross your minimum levels of calorie intake, you will achieve steady and predictable fat loss.

Recalculate your Total Daily Calorie Expenditure (TDEE) Every 2-3 Months

Use the same equation from above to recalculate your your TDEE every 2-3 months. As you work out and your body changes, your TDEE will naturally change as well. If you continue to use a calorie deficit or surplus that was calculated for the body you had 6 months or a year ago, you may well be eating the incorrect amount of calories for your new body to see optimal results. It’s better to be safe and quickly recalculate your TDEE with your new bodyweight/activity level everyone once in a while.

Don’t Count Calories Forever

It’s important for you to know that you don’t have to count calories forever. My recommendation is to count calories for 6 months. At first, this may seem tedious. After a while you’ll get used to it, and it will become more of a habit that doesn’t interfere in your life.

After counting calories for a few months, you’ll get a hang for it and will be able to eyeball the amount of food that you require instead of weighing it out. You’ll know what I mean when you get there. When you get to that point you can safely stop counting calories. Just remember to continue using the same amount of the foods you normally eat.

If you can become the master of the calories that you put in your body, you will be ahead of 90% of people you see in the gym. It’s worth the time and effort if you’re serious about your body.

What Happens If I Just Can’t Fit Counting Calories Into My Life Right Now?

I highly recommend counting calories for at least 6 months, but if you honestly feel like you just couldn’t do it or your busy life is already jam-packed and you don’t think you can find the time, then I’d say that your best bet would be a complete nutrition and weight loss program like The Venus Factor. This guide is based on real foods and doesn’t require you to count calories to be successful.

Here’s to your success,

Josh

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